Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Secretary DeVos doesn't understand what I do

As a university professor, I was profoundly disappointed in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' remarks at CPAC regarding higher education. Speaking directly to the university students in attendance, she said:
The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you're a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
Everything about this statement, from the assertions made to the manner in which those claims are presented, is utterly false.

The goal of any reputable university is not to tell students what to think. It is to teach students to think critically and to think for themselves.

In my admittedly young career, I have worked as an instructor, lecturer, and assistant professor at three universities in three different states. That goal has always been the standard: How do we mold the next generation of young people into thinking, critically engaged adults ready to enter civic life and prosperous careers?

We wrestle with this every day. We literally lose sleep over it. And we don't always have a ready answer to this question given the delicate environment we face.

Generally speaking, college professors are a liberal bunch, oftentimes more liberal than our students. But we know that. And we also know that we exercise influence over our classrooms by virtue of our position.

With these considerations in mind, I've had numerous conversations with diligent and thoughtful peers and mentors about how we may temper our personal biases. We strive to avoid anything resembling indoctrination and work to maintain a free flow of ideas through honest debate.

We try to engage with students regarding current events and controversies in ways that allow students to express and debate a multitude of opinions. Oftentimes that means checking our own biases at the door, playing devil's advocate, and ensuring that oftentimes heated discourse among students remains civil so all feel confident that their voices will be heard and respected.

But remarks like those from Ms. DeVos and the underlying attitudes about ivory tower elitism make an already difficult task that much more so.

Professors and lecturers have in many cases become so fearful of accusations of undue influence that they actively avoid discussions of politics or any controversial topics for that matter. Such an approach is antithetical to the very idea of what education should be, and it has dangerous consequences for our democracy.

You can determine the quality of your education by answering a simple question: Was I ever made to feel uncomfortable? 

I spend most of my days as a professor making students uncomfortable. I challenge their worldviews, regardless of what they are. That makes them uncomfortable. I ask them to explain why they say what they say, or think what they think. That makes them uncomfortable. I don't reward students for simply having opinions, but demand they justify their stances. That makes them uncomfortable.

A good educational environment allows students to test ideas in the marketplace, to learn that they are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and to refuse to accept any statement or truism without reason or evidence. Depriving students of this opportunity creates a form of self-indoctrintation, where we all view ourselves as correct and the ultimate arbiters of truth because we never questions ourselves or others. 

This insidious effect is more common than many might think, and it threatens our ability to sustain a democratic society. The inability to honestly debate ideas cripples our capacity to effectively address serious problems.

Educators, and the public writ large, must also understand that challenging an opinion is not the same as silencing one. If a student voices opposition to childhood vaccinations or support for school vouchers, I am not silencing her by asking, "Why?" 

I want to know if her opinion is informed. I want her to think about the sources that inform that opinion. I want her to ask whether those sources are credible. I want her to ask what makes for a credible source. I want her to critically evaluate her own thought processes. I want to know if she's echoing someone else's thoughts, or if she is thinking for herself.

That is education. If Ms. DeVos has a differing opinion, I welcome her thoughts on the matter, but I'm going to ask her why she thinks as she does.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Margin of Error

Trump, like all politicians, preys on certain ignorances among the population to advance his political agenda. And when I say "ignorances," I don't mean that in the nuanced sense, as if to refer to racism, sexism, xenophobia, or the like. I mean it in the literal, Webster's dictionary sense: "lack of knowledge, education, or awareness."

And, I suppose if I'm being super specific, it's the ignorances of our ignorances -- i.e., not knowing what we don't know -- that have been exploited most by the recent travel ban. If there's two things every politically engaged American claims to be, yet most certainly is not, it's Constitutional lawyer and an expert on opinion polls. We tend to cite both sources badly, and often only when the most tertiary readings support our position.

Apparently, our president is no different, at least according to his Feb. 6 tweet:
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
First and foremost, to Mr. Trump: you're the goddamn president, and also a 70-year-old man. There's no fucking reason for Twitter to be your primary mode of communication.

But to my main argument, I assume that Trump is referring to the widely circulated CNN/ORC poll conducted last week, in which 47% of respondents approved of the ban, while 53% disapproved.

The CNN/ORC poll in question appears fairly sound (some might argue the travel ban question is a bit leading, though if that's the case I would say if anything it skews in favor of the ban). In either case, the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3%, so a 50/50 split in public opinion is actually fairly likely. Unfortunately, many news outlets fail to report this all-important margin of error, and even when they do they fail to seriously consider it.

So let's talk about margin of error as it relates to opinion polling.

If you want want to know exactly what public sentiment is on any given issue, you'd have to ask every member of the population. This process is called a census. As the population increases in size, taking a census becomes more expensive and time consuming. Imagine how long it would take to poll all of the 200 million registered voters in the U.S.?

That's a huge reason why pollsters sample, or question a subset of the total population that reflects its general make-up. A representative sample of about 1,000 people can give you an immensely reliable estimation of how the total population feels.

But sampling, though efficient and reliable, is not exact. That's where the margin of error comes in. It basically operates as a cushion to indicate how good a pollster's estimate is. For most professional political polls, plus or minus 3-5% is the norm. Essentially, that means it's highly likely that the true opinion of the public lies within 3-5 percentage points of what the poll reports.

So, returning to our CNN/ORC poll, it doesn't actually state that 53% of American adults disapprove of the ban. It states that the pollster is highly confident that 50-56% of Americans disapprove of the ban.

What I'm saying is Trump should stop bitching. He may very well have the support he claims to have. And even if he didn't have that support, his grounds for complaining -- namely that the election polls were wrong -- has no standing in reality.

It's true that Trump's electoral win constituted an upset, but just barely. There were a variety of models that predicted a Clinton win, some narrower victories than others. Perhaps the most followed prognosticator was Nate Silver, who missed on five states. But if you take a look at the average polling numbers in those states, you'll see why the margin of error is so critical:

Florida: Trump, +0.2 (Trump won by 1.2)
North Carolina: Trump, +1 (Trump won by 3.7)
Pennsylvania: Clinton, +1.9 (Trump won by 0.7)
Michigan: Clinton, +3.4 (Trump won by 0.3)
Wisconsin: Clinton, +6.5 (Trump won by 0.7)

Real Clear Politics, which aggregates these polling averages, interprets them with a 5 point margin of error. That means the only state on this list pollsters "got wrong" was Wisconsin, which fell 2.2 points outside the margin. Every other result was well within the expected range.

So long as the poll is conducted with representative samples, well constructed questionnaires, and otherwise sound methodology -- common for organizations like Gallup, Reuters and Pew (among others) -- you can and should trust the results. But equally important is learning to interpret those results, both as individual questions and on the whole.

It's incredibly dangerous to dismiss good information out of hand, especially if the major reason for your dismissal is that you simply don't like the results. That's largely how Trump appears to operate, not just with polls, but with everything, though that's a longer conversation best left for another day.